Archive for show business

For National Siblings Day: Some Classic Show Biz Siblings

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 10, 2017 by travsd

The Five Ames Sisters

It’s National Siblings Day, and to my shock I haven’t done a post yet on the countless classic show biz brothers and sisters who either had professional relationships or were in the same industry. Nepotism greases the wheels of show business. It shouldn’t surprise you that there are this many siblings in the highest echelons of entertainment. Uncharacteristically, I’m gonna go all Joe Laurie Jr on yer ass — this post will largely consist of lists of names; just click on the highlighted people to know more. Also, so as not to go crazy, I’m restricting this to the classic era: vaudeville and early motion pictures.


Notable vaudeville teams and acts where the members were all brothers included: The Six Brown Brothers, six brothers from Canada who were saxophone playing clowns; the acrobatic Hanlon Brothers, also six in number; the five Marx Brothers (although usually there were only four in the act at any given time); the melodious Mills Brothers (actually three brothers plus their father); the three virtually identical Ritz Brothers; the Wiere Brothers, also three in all; the Three Stooges, which usually contained at least two of the three Howard brothers: always Moe, and at various times Shemp or Curly); the three energetic Berry Brothers;  the three tap-dancing Condos Brothers; Willie and Eugene Howard (no relation to the Stooges); the wunderkind Nicholas Brothers; the Irish Kernell Brothers; the hilarious Russell Brothers (who were in drag); the Tutt Brothers of black vaudeville; the acrobalancing Rath Brothers; the Rogers Brothers, who copied Weber & Fields; and the gravity-defying Mosconi Brothers.

Al Jolson and Harry Jolson briefly performed in an act together, but later they became, fierce rivals, and later simply enemies, because Harry could hardly be called a rival to Al. Two of Grace Kelly’s uncles were in vaudeville, but separately: Walter C. Kelly was a monologist; George Kelly was an actor who wrote sketches for vaudeville before becoming a Broadway playwright.

And there are many, many more acrobatic brother acts, though it was a convention in circus and vaudeville for acrobats to call themselves “brothers” and “families”, when they weren’t technically related. Although they truly did, in a real sense adopt one another.


Sister acts were also a major staple of vaudeville and early show business. The Seven Sutherland Sisters were like something out of a fairy tale — Snow White’s Dwarves mixed with Rapunzel. One of the most notorious of all vaudeville acts was the five Cherry Sisters (they dwindled in number as time went on), reputed to be the worst act ever. The five Barrison Sisters had a very naughty act. There were four Lane Sisters, although they tended to pair off into duos and later all went solo. There were also the Gale Quadruplets, although they were actually two sets of twin sisters. The four Whitman Sisters were stars of black vaudeville. Gracie Allen started out in an act with her sisters called The Four Colleens. The most famous sister trio is undoubtedly the Andrews Sisters.  Other trios included the Boswell Sisters, the Brox Sisters, and the Three X SistersThe Gumm Sisters were also a trio, the youngest of whom became Judy Garland. Singing sister duos were an entire vaudeville specialty: among the biggest were the Duncan Sisters, others included the Frazee Sisters, the Oakland Sisters, and the Williams Sisters. The Watson Sisters were unusual in being low comedians; the Ponselle Sisters were opera singers; the Cameron Sisters were balletic dancers. Twin sister acts included the Dolly Sisters (famous clothes horses), the French Twin Sisters and the Fairbanks Twins.   The Hilton Sisters were conjoined!

The Hovick Sisters had performed together in a kiddie act; they later became famous separately as Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc. 


A couple of sister-and-brother acts spring to mind, both dance teams:  Fred and Adele Astaire, and Vilma and Buddy Ebsen.  Josie and George M. Cohan performed with their parents in the Four Cohans. Most common was for several brothers and sisters to be in larger family acts together (frequently Irish), such as the Seven Little Foys, the Five Kellys (featuring Gene Kelly), the O’Connor Family (featuring Donald O’Connor), the Quillans (featuring Eddie Quillan)The Four Fords;  the Lake family act (with Arthur Lake and Florence Lake);  and the Morris family act (including Chester Morris). Fanny Brice’s brother Lew Brice was also in vaudeville, although the two performed separately.


An interesting phenomenon: when the top silent comedians made it big, They often found work for their brothers, some of whom made good for themselves, some of whom didn’t.

Charlie’s Chaplin’s older half-brother Sydney Chaplin is one of those who did make good. He actually taught Charlie much of what he knew and got him his job with Karno’s Speechless Comedies. A true talent in his own right, he was a star himself in the teens and twenties. Charlie’s other half-brother Wheeler Dryden also showed up at certain point, and made himself useful in the family business, though he was never a star. Likewise, Buster Keaton put his parents and and his brother Jingles and sister Louise into his films, not surprising, since they had performed in vaudeville together. Harold Lloyd put his brother Gaylord Lloyd into films, but he didn’t click. Lupino Lane and Stanley Lupino both came from the same family of British music hall clown/acrobats. Both starred in shorts at Educational Pictures, although the former fared better than the latter. And then there the brothers Parrott: Charles (better known as Charley Chase) and Paul, both prodigious talents both before and behind the camera. And then there are great comedy produce/director brothers Jack White and Jules White.


Notable producing brothers include the Ringling Brothers of the circus world , the Shuberts; the Frohmans; the Lemaire brothers; the Warner Brothers; Jack and Harry Cohn of Columbia; the Schenck Brothers, and Cecil B. Demille and his brother, director/screenwriter/playwright William DeMille. Broadway comedian and producer Lew Fields’s three children Joseph, Herbert and Dorothy were important Broadway creators, sometimes collaborating; the Gershwin brothers were one of the great songwriting teams.


Some famous acting siblings included John, Lionel and Ethyl Barrymore; Mary Pickford and her brother Jack; Lillian and Dorothy Gish; Wallace and Noah Beery; the Talmadge Sisters; Joan, Constance and Barbara Bennett; and Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Director John Ford got into films because his brother Francis was a movie star. Director Raoul Walsh’s brother was the actor George Walsh. Dustin and William Farnum were both actors, and their brother Marshall, a director.

Okay, I have to post this now before the day’s half over. I’m certain I’ll be adding to it!


100 Years Ago Today: America Enters WWI (and Its Impact on Vaudeville)

Posted in Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on April 6, 2017 by travsd


Today is the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War One.

We who have not felt the sting of a proper World War in over six decades years cannot appreciate the deuced inconvenience such a development can be, especially where important matters like show business are concerned. Prior to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, successful British and American entertainers spent a good deal of their time on boats. Performers like Houdini, Will Rogers and W.C. Fields literally had steamer trunks with customs stamps from the great world capitals plastered on them. When the shooting started, all that dried up. Americans were deprived of their favorite British Music Hall stars for the most part; though some brave Americans continue to travel to the embattled countries. Some, like the indefatigable Elsie Janis traveled right into the war zones to entertain the troops.

Patriotism in the era amounted to a mania. Prior to America’s entry into the conflict, thespians like Alla Nazimova could present pacifist playlets in the vaud houses. Once we entered the war, such messages were out; George M. Cohan “Over There” (introduced by Nora Bayes) was more in keeping with the times.


As will happen in wartime, even the most heterogeneous cultural institution of all — vaudeville — spoke with a single voice on this issue. Shortly after America joined the war, Cohan called a special meeting of vaudevillians to see who would join the war effort. Every hand shot up.Vaudeville vets like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks did their part by crisscrossing the nation selling millions in war bonds.


Gummo Marx was drafted; he ended up leaving his family act the Marx Brothers and being replaced by Zeppo. At the same time, many so-called Dutch or German dialect comedians, such as Grouch Marx, feeling the weight of anti-German sentiment, dropped those kinds of characters from their repertoire. And some were to pay the ultimate price. Vernon Castle, one-half of the nation’s premier dance team enlisted in the RAF (he was Canadian) and died in a crash. James Reese Europe commanded a whole musical unit — and was finally murdered by one of his own musicians while he was still in uniform.

Now save the date! Metropolitan Playhouse’s 25th Anniversary Gala is April 25 & I’m organizing and hosting a World War One tribute as the entertainment!  We have Peter Daniel Straus and Chris Rozzi as Weber and Fields! Gay Marshall singing Parisian songs of the era! The one and only Lorinne Lampert doing George M. Cohan material! The Two and Only Jonathan M. Smith doing English music hall! A presentation of Nazimova’s famous starring vehicle War Brides directed by Ivana Cullinan and starring Alyssa Simon, Victoria Miller, Morgan Zipf-Meister, and Amy Overman Plowman! and Charlie Chaplin’s The Bond, accompanied by Ben Model! And more! Hosted and interpreted by yours truly Trav SD! It’s going to be a memorable evening — In fact, I remember it already! Tickets, reservations and information all here. 

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments. And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc

Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd


It undoubtedly speaks to my present state of mind that I wasn’t crazy about Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer. Someone recommended it to me online just knowing I’d love it, and the title certainly sounds like the kind of thing I’d really go for, for a multiplicity of reasons. But the title mis-sells it. I was expecting and hoping for a real-life story perhaps mixing elements of To Be or Not to Be, I am a Camera, and Schindler’s List, featuring real-life derring-do and heroism by a cabaret performer deep in the heart of the Third Reich…

Instead, the book’s subject turns out to be an American flim-flam artist, vaudeville manager and impresario from Troy, New York named Freeman Bernstein. His “hustle” of Hitler consisted of selling him a few tons of scrap metal under the premise that it was a shipment of nickel, much in demand as Germany was preparing for war. Even as a swindle this strikes me as rather contemptible, lacking whimsy or creativity, just kind of a bottom-feeding theft. I’m glad it happened to Nazis, but if it happened to anyone else I’d say, “Clap that dude in irons and bring him bad food.” Further, the book, in the tradition of its subject, keeps you on the hook for over 300 pages before finally delivering its underwhelming story. It is preceded by pages of lore about the guy’s show biz career running amusement parks and small time vaudeville houses, and crossing paths with the occasional person of note, such as Mae West, to whom he once tried to sell some fake jewels. (It’s not so easy to sell fake diamonds to Diamond Lil).

The book is a labor of love by Bernstein’s great-nephew Walter Shapiro and has the flavor of family anecdote, a long, winding bar-room story at long last set down on paper. I’m going to hang on to it for awhile and perhaps mine it later for vaudeville lore. But at the moment I am much less interested in vaudevillians per se than in VAUDEVILLIANS WHO TOPPLE NAZIS, know’m sayin’?

More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People

Posted in BROOKLYN, Dime Museum and Side Show, EXHIBITIONS & LECTURES, Human Anomalies (Freaks), Little People, ME, My Shows with tags , , , , , on July 27, 2016 by travsd


Today happens to be the birthday of both Fleming W. Ackerman (a.k.a “Colonel Speck”) and Major Edward Newell (a.k.a. “General Grant, Jr.”). (Click on the links to learn more about these illustrious Little People.

If the odds of a Little Person being born are small, and the odds of a performing Little Person even smaller, think how small the odds of TWO performing Little People being born on the same day! Seems to me an auspicious time to announce here my upcoming talk at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, entitled More Than Munchkins: An Illustrated History of Performing Little People. 


For centuries Little People have been a mainstay of popular entertainment. In this illustrated talk, I will trace the historical ups and downs of very short-statured entertainers from medieval times through the era of P.T. Barnum and dime museums, to side shows and circuses, to vaudeville, to movies and television. Along the way, we trace the evolution of the Little Person’s image in popular culture, from one of cruel derision in the age of the court jester…to one of glamour, as personified by sex symbol and Emmy-winning actor Peter Dinklage…to a virtual return to carny days on reality tv.

The talk will take place Monday August 22, 2016 at 7pm at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Ave, Brooklyn. Tickets are $8

More info and tickets are here:

Some Vaudeville Fathers

Posted in Child Stars, Father's Day, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2016 by travsd


It being the annual day given to honor Paternal Progenitors it seemed appropriate to look at a few with a vaudeville connection, as we had done with Mothers previously. We have already blogged about all of these fellers. Just follow the link to read more about the gents in question.

And vaudeville fathers DESERVE a special tribute. You know who sucks? NON-vaudeville fathers. So many of our great stars FLED from stern, domineering, controlling male parents who disapproved of their career choice and their life style, only to be appropriately scorned for their obtuseness by the annals of history. There was Al Jolson’s father, the cantor, later dramatized in The Jazz Singer. W.C. Fields’ father, the produce grocer. Ed Wynn’s father, the dealer in hats. These men all wanted and expected their sons to go into the family business, tried to force the issue, and later got their noses rubbed in it. Joe Frisco’s father threw his dancing clogs into a woodburning stove. Such parenting techniques rarely work out.

Much more to the purpose are the show biz dads, who groomed their kids to join them in the family business. Here are a few:


Eddie Foy

Eddie Foy was the ultimate of course. That is why we put him at the top, and place his picture as the header of the posts. The proud papa paraded his seven kids across the nation’s vaudeville stages, showing off their talents, and turning them into a mini-industry. The act was so well-loved it was later memorialized a bio-pic starring Bob Hope. 


Gerry Cohan

Equally deserving of the top spot! If you’re like me, your view of the famously gentle, indulgent father will be forever shaped by Walter Huston’s loving portrait in Yankee Doodle Dandy. My mother thanks you, my father thanks you…


Joe Keaton

Okay, maybe the famously alcoholic, short-tempered and violence prone father of Buster Keaton doesn’t deserve a mug that says “World’s Greatest Dad”, but I think the fact that Buster never disparaged him, and remained close to him, and even cast him in his movies, speaks volumes.


Sam “Frenchy” Marx

Far from disapproving of his sons’ chosen career, he was often the designated audience plant whose job it was to cue laughter during their early days in vaudeville.


Lew Fields

One half of vaudeville’s greatest comedy team Weber and Fields, Fields later became an important Broadway producer in his own right, and instilled in his children Dorothy, Herbert and Joseph such love of the theatre that they all became important Broadway creators in their own right.


Arthur “A.J.” Jefferson

Stan Laurel’s father, a man of the regional U.K. theatre himself. He built Stan a toy theatre when he was a kid, and got him some of his first jobs.


Charles Chaplin, Sr.

Okay, Charlie Senior was the textbook definition of a deadbeat dad…but he was pretty crucial to Charlie’s career in the early years, and without a doubt provided him with a useful cautionary example of the evils of drink.


Danny Lewis

Is there any doubt that if the Lewises hadn’t grossly neglected their famous child by touring the vaudeville and nightclub circuits he wouldn’t be the man he is today. Jerry Lewis is a man who needs a LITTLE attention. The picture above shows three generations of performing Lewis men. The youngster is Jerry’s son Gary, who with his group The Playboys had some hits in the mid-60s.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


On the Marx Women

Posted in Comedy, Comedy Teams, Marx Brothers, Women with tags , , , , on June 15, 2016 by travsd

Continuing our little series of posts celebrating the re-launch of I’ll Say She Is, today a look at the Marx Brothers’ wives. But first we begin with the most important Marx Woman of all —


Minnie Schoenberg Marx

“I Want a Girl (Just Like The Girl Who Married Dear Old Dad)” goes the old Tin Pan Alley tune. But it is amusing how little the Marx Brothers seem to have have lived this song, despite the epic extent to which they all adored their mother.

Not only did Minnie give birth to the boys, she can truly be said to have given birth to their act. Her parents Fanny and Lafe were itinerant performers themselves (a yodeling harp player and magician/ventriloquist respectively), and her brother was the famous vaudevillian Al Shean. The extended Schoenberg family were very much in the Marx Brothers lives and influenced them tremendously. Groucho was a mere boy when he resolved to go into show business, and Minnie instinctively became a very involved stage mother. As each of the brothers joined the act, she became their manager and remained so until they finally made it big. At a certain stage she was even in their act.

Minnie is famous in the lore of the Marx Brothers for being a crazy eccentric, the sort of woman who wore a wig and then took it off in front of everyone at card games to air out her sweating scalp. Physically, she is said to have resembled Chico and Harpo. Thus we are not terribly surprised to learn that none of the women the Marx Brothers’ married seems anything like the one-of-a-kind Minnie. They seemed to prefer beautiful, glamorous women (go figure!), in the majority of cases, gentiles.


Betty Karp (Mrs. Chico #1)

It is another cherished fact of Marxian lore that the tom-catting Chico became the first brother in the family to tie the knot. A pretty teenage fan from Chicago when he met her, Betty Karp lived amongst the chaos of the large Marx family (including a domineering mother and several handsy, oversexed Marx men) after she officially joined it in 1917. The most “traditional” of the Marxian wives, Betty suffered a quarter century of Chico’s infidelity and the gambling away of all his paychecks before he threw her over for Mary De Vithas (who resembled her) in 1942. Chico and Betty had one child, Maxine, who was to write a memoir about life with her dad.


Mary De Vithas (Mrs Chico #2)

“Mary Dee” was the actress who became Chico’s main squeeze in 1942 while he was still married to Betty. They didn’t make it legal until 1958, three years before Chico passed away.


Susan Fleming (Mrs Harpo)

Harpo married late, but he married well. For my full post on the beautiful chorine who became Mrs. Harpo Marx, go here. 


Ruth Johnson (Mrs. Groucho #1)

The second woman to enter the Marx family, like Betty she came along in plenty of time (1920) to be part of the whole extended brood, parents-in-law and all. The Swedish-American Johnson was initially Zeppo’s girlfriend and dancing partner in the act, but Groucho unceremoniously stole her from his little brother. They had two children: Arthur, who became a successful writer, and Miriam, whose life was overshadowed by substance abuse problems.

Groucho’s marriage to Ruth set a sort of template for all his relationships. While not the womanizer that his brothers were, he tended to be mean, dismissive and sarcastic, and often made jokes at his wife’s expense — in front of (often famous) company. Ruth became an alcoholic, which, ironically Groucho used as an excuse for leaving her in 1942.


Kay Gorcey (Mrs Groucho #2)

The wife of the most famous Dead End Kid Leo Gorcey, Kay fled her abusive husband and crashed at Groucho’s house because she was friends with his daughter Miriam. Groucho flipped for the gorgeous refugee and they were married in 1945. She would be the first of many “May-December” romances for him. But for poor Kay, it was to be a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire”. Groucho was no wife beater, but his cutting criticism was relentless. Kay was to be the second of his wives that he drove to drink. The pair divorced in 1950. The marriage produced one daughter, Melinda, the rare Marx child to follow her father into life as a performer (although she did it mostly at her father’s instigation and abandoned it when she grew older).


Eden Hartford (Mrs. Groucho #3)

Eden was the sister of Dee Hartford, Howard Hawks’ wife, whom had appeared with Groucho in A Girl in Every Port (1952). Meeting Eden on the set one day, Groucho fell hard and they tied the knot in 1954. Eden was also an aspiring actress, although she had little success in that line. One of her most notable credits is an appearance as an Indian girl in Groucho’s Peter Minuit sketch in The Story of Mankind (1957). In 1969, Eden filed for divorce on the by-now-predictable grounds of “extreme cruelty”.


Erin Fleming (Groucho significant other)

The inclusion of Fleming here will rankle some; the pair were not married, the best that might be argued was a burgeoning common-law status. She was the personal assistant who came into Groucho’s life around the time of the divorce from Eden and wormed her way into his heart, ultimately becoming an apparent Svengali figure — one who might be thought of as having brought a little karma to Groucho’s life by being cruel and abusive to him. An account of these years is best read in Steve Stoliar’s tremendous book Raised Eyebrows, soon to be a major motion picture directed by Rob Zombie.


Helen Von Tilzer (Mrs. Gummo)

The kitschy valentine is because I could find no photo of the lady in question — not even in a group picture of the entire family. Not surprising, as she was the retiring wife of the most retiring Marx Brother. Previously I had been guilty of jumping to the forgivable conclusion that she was related to the Tin Pan Alley songwriters Albert and Harry Von Tilzer. But it turns out that A) Helen’s maiden name was Theaman. Her first husband’s last name was Von Tilzer, and he was no relation to the songwriters, because B) the songwriters’ real last name was Gumbinsky. Leaving Gummo’s wife even more obscure than she was previously. The pair married in 1929, just as the boys were getting a foothold in the movie industry; Gummo eventually became a big time agent.


Marion Benda (Mrs. Zeppo #1)

More Marxian spousal confusion. Zeppo was married to an actress named Marion Benda from 1927 to 1954. The confusion lies in the fact that there was a much more famous Ziegfeld girl by the same name. But Mrs. Zeppo was originally named Bimberg, and the famous one was originally named Mary Elizabeth Watson. The couple adopted two children.


Barbara Blakely (Mrs. Zeppo #2)

Undoubtedly the most famous Marx spouse of all, owing to the fact that her third and last husband was the Chairman of the Board Mr. Frank Sinatra. The lady who became Barbara Sinatra was born Barbara Blakely. Prior to marrying Zeppo in 1959, she had been a Las Vegas showgirl and a model, and had married and divorced a beauty pageant executive. According to her autobiography, Zeppo was jealous, possessive and rough with her. She started seeing Sinatra on the sly. She divorced Zeppo in 1973 and married Ol’ Blue Eyes in 1976. But the trio remained friendly and Barbara helped Zeppo through the ordeal of fighting the lung cancer that eventually killed him in 1979.

For tickets and info on I’ll Say She Is, go to :



Another Billy West (the “Progressive Minstrel”)

Posted in African American Interest with tags , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2015 by travsd


Today is the birthday of 19th century performer William H. (“Billy”) West (1853-1902). We call him “another Billy West” to distinguish from two others…the silent comedy star and the contemporary voice-over comedian.

I acknowledge that this is really a TERRIBLE time to celebrate a blackface minstrel. Okay, there’s never a good time to do that. But yesterday we had the very unique Rachel Dolezal confessing on NBC Nightly News to using spray-on tan to enhance her faux blackness. And this morning we learn some maniac white supremacist murdered 9 black people in a South Carolina church.  So today is a particularly terrible time.

But we don’t need to celebrate Billy West and we certainly don’t condone blackface. The point of this is to talk about history, good, bad, warts and all. Besides, West was known as “The Progressive Minstel”, and you’ll soon see why, and it’s actually a good reason.


West was a blackface minstrel who became famous when he teamed up with George Primrose as the stars of J.H. Haverly’s Mastodons, a lavish traveling minstrel show with an enormous troupe, the biggest in teh country. By 1877 the team was successful enough that they broke off and created their own show.


Inspired by British impresario Sam Hague who toured the U.S. with his company of minstrels in 1881, Primrose and West began to emulate Hague’s more refined methods of showmanship, minimizing plantation material, adding classical music and ballet, and de-emphasizing blackface to the extent that, by the time they were done, there were only two blackface minstrels in the entire company, the end men (“Tambo” and “Bones”). They had great success with this method, although they had their critics within the industry.

In 1898, Primrose split with West and teamed up with the more traditional Lew Dockstader. And West continued on with West’s Big Minstrel Jubilee.


He died five years later and was buried at Green-wood Cemetery, which is how this post came to be written because I was walking through there a few weeks ago and came across this:


Note the symbolic tambourine and bones that adorn the monument.


To find out about  old school show biz including minstrelsyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


%d bloggers like this: